Oklahoma Education Department reviews contracts in wake of standardized testing errors

BY MEGAN ROLLAND mrolland@opubco.com Modified: September 5, 2011 at 1:02 am •  Published: September 5, 2011
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Oklahoma's track record with testing companies responsible for the state's high-stakes exams has been marred with errors and delays.

During the past decade, a combination of dissatisfaction and competitive costs has prompted the state to use five testing companies.

Every spring students in grades 3 to 12 sit take Oklahoma's standardized tests in a variety of subjects. Companies that have multimillion-dollar contracts with the state are responsible for developing, administering and scoring the exams. They also must analyze the results.

State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi announced last week that errors were made by the testing company Pearson Education Inc. when calculating school and district accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Barresi requested a review of the $16.7 million contract with Pearson. That contract is for Pearson to develop, administer and score the state's third-grade through eighth-grade exams.

Barresi said the contract could be terminated.

Almost exactly a decade ago, Oklahoma fired the testing company Riverside Publishing after test scores for grades 3 to 8 were delivered late. The company also was fined $1,800 for each day test scores were late.

It was noted then that no testing company had an unblemished record. The same holds true today.

“Every company in the testing industry has had errors,” said Bob Shaefer, director of FairTest, a think tank that opposes the high-stakes testing mandated in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind Act.

“What we see across the nation is a perverted game of musical chairs, in which a test company will get fired in one state for messing up and hired in another state.”

Huge decisions

Shaefer said the disconcerting thing is that these exams are increasingly being used to make huge decisions.

In just a few years, Oklahoma teachers and principals will be evaluated in part based on student performance on state exams, schools will be graded on an A to F grading scale, high school seniors will be prevented from graduating if they can't pass their end-of-instruction exams and third-grade students will be retained if they fail the reading exam.

Barresi said the high stakes associated with these exams are exactly why she's not accepting anything but the highest quality results from Oklahoma's testing companies.

Oklahoma has three testing contracts. Up until a few months ago, Pearson held all three. The contracts are for grades 3 to 8 criterion reference tests, both the regular exams and special exams for students on individualized education plans; for grades 9 to 12 end-of-instruction exams for both regular and special students; and for the portfolio assessment of the state's most cognitively disabled students.

The multimillion-dollar contracts are awarded in an official public bidding process through the Department of Central Services.

Spring 2011 was the first time Pearson administered the grades 3 to 8 exams, after outbidding the previous company, Data Recognition, in 2010 to take over administration of the tests.

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